The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics, Explained

by Nancy Atkinson on October 9, 2012

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This hot-off-the-press video from the science-explainer folks at Sixty Symbols does a great job of detailing the science of the work by Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland, which won them 2012 Nobel Prize in physics today. Their experiments on quantum particles have already resulted in ultra-precise clocks and may one day help lead to computers that can work faster than those in use today.

The video also shows how expectations were that the prize might go to the teams at the Large Hadron Collier for the discovery of what they called a “Higgs-like boson” — a particle that resembles the long sought-after Higgs.

But, back to the winners: Haroche and Wineland showed in the 1990s how to observe individual particles while preserving their bizarre quantum properties, something that scientists had struggled to do before. As the Nobel Prize committee states, “The Nobel Laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them.”

Read more about their work at the Nobel website.


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Lord Haw-Haw. October 9, 2012 at 10:14 PM

Thank’s Nancy you are ahead of the posse with this up to the minute video. The link to the Nobel website opens on the page to post greetings to the laureates. The jargon-free assessment of Haroche & Wineland’s research is available by clicking here:

lcrowell October 9, 2012 at 11:07 PM

Of course the gold standard is to combine these two. A high-Q cavity that holds a photon between two mirrors could also have a trapped atom or ion. If the atom as in its outer electron shell a possible transition between two states with energy E and E’ one could them observe the photon becoming absorbed by the atom if the photon has energy ? = ?? = E’ – E, for ? = 2?? and ? the frequency of light. If the atom is in the lower energy E the photon has some quantum probability of absorbing the photon and having its
energy level raised to E’. Similarly of course there is a quantum amplitude (amplitude squared = probability) then for the atom to emit a photon with energy ? = ?? = E’ – E, and relax back to the lower energy state E. This will then oscillate.


Sankaravelayudhan Nandakumar October 13, 2012 at 9:16 AM

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2012 was awarded jointly to Serge
Haroche and David J. Wineland “for ground-breaking experimental methods
that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems”

Their ground-breaking methods
have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards
building a new type of super fast computer based on quantum physics,” the
academy said. “The research has also led to the construction of extremely
precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time.

Quantum-optics pioneer Alain
Aspect of Laboratoire Charles Fabry in Paris
told “Observing, manipulating and controlling
individual quantum systems has been a major breakthrough of the last few
decades. Schrödinger doubted that it might ever be possible, but this year’s
laureates have done it. Cavity quantum electrodynamics (CQED) – whereby the
properties of an atom are controlled by placing it in an optical or microwave
cavity. Haroche focused on microwave experiments and turned the technique on
its head – using CQED to control the properties of individual photons. In a
series of ground-breaking experiments, Haroche used CQED to realize
Schrödinger’s famous cat experiment in which a system is in a superposition of
two very different quantum states until a measurement is made on the system.
Such states are extremely fragile, and the techniques developed to create and
measure CQED states are now being applied to the development of quantum
computers. Wineland bagged his half of the Nobel for his ground-breaking work
on the quantum control of ions. One of his many achievements was the creation
and transfer of a single ion in a Schrödinger’s cat state using trapping
techniques developed at NIST. Ion traps are created in ultrahigh vacuum using
carefully controlled electric fields and a trap can hold just one ion or
several in a row.

Rainer Blatt of the University of Innsbruck
in Austria
does experiments in both CQED and ion trapping, and he told
that the Nobel committee chose well in awarding the prize to Haroche and
Wineland. Blatt points out that the pair developed similar quantum-control
techniques for use on different physical systems – techniques that have laid
the groundwork for many of today’s nascent quantum-information systems.

Blatt cites Wineland’s 2008
development of “quantum-logic spectroscopy” – which allows a single
ion to be used as an optical clock – as an important application of the control
techniques, along with the creation in 2009 of a small-scale device that
performs all the functions required in large-scale ion-based quantum processing.
Haroche’s work provides a framework for controlling the interaction between a
single atom and a single photon – something that Blatt says is currently being
used to develop ways of exchanging quantum information between atoms and
photons. This could allow physicists to create quantum computers in which data
are stored in stationary quantum bits (qubits) based on atoms, which are
relatively stable over long periods of time. Data could then be transmitted
between atoms using photons, which can preserve their quantum information while
travelling relatively large distances..

Light and matter, when the
minuscule scales of single particles are reached, behave in surprising ways in
a part of physics known as quantum mechanics. Working with light and matter on
this level would have been unthinkable before the pair developed solutions to
pick, manipulate and measure photons and ions individually, allowing an insight
into a microscopic world that was once just the province of scientific theory.

Their work has implications for
light-based clocks far more precise than the atomic clocks at the heart of the
world’s business systems, and quantum computing, which may – or may not – revolutionise
desktop computing as we know i

But for physicists, the import of
the pair’s techniques is outlined in a
layman’s summary on the Nobel site: they preserve the delicate quantum
mechanical states of the photons and ions – states that theorists had for
decades hoped to measure in the laboratory, putting the ideas of quantum
mechanics on a solid experimental footing.

Those include the slippery
quantum mechanical ideas of “entanglement” – the seemingly ethereal
connection between two distant particles that underpins much work on the
“uncrackable codes” of quantum cryptography – and of
“decoherence”, in which the quantum nature of a particle slowly slips
away through its interactions with other matter.

Prof Sir Peter Knight of the UK’s Institute
of Physics, said:
“Haroche and Wineland have made tremendous advances in our understanding
of quantum entanglement, with beautiful experiments to show how atomic systems
can be manipulated to exhibit the most extraordinary coherence

Humans think though development
of a picture of the minds eye. So even though spin, particle are just names
that have nothing to what the math equations are talking about. By simply
naming – gives people the idea that these ‘things’ that the math equations are
referring to actually do have spin, and mass – which they don’t.

“The term ‘particle’ survives
in modern physics, but very little of its classical meaning remains. A particle
can now best be defined as the conceptual carrier of a set of variates. . . It
is also conceived as the occupant of a state defined by the same state of
variates. . .It might seem desirable to distinguish the ‘mathematical fictions’
from ‘actual particles’; but it is difficult to find any logical basis for such
a distinction. ‘Discovering’ a particle mean observing certain effects which
are accepted as proof of its existence.”

hat’s why the names mislead the
ordinary person on the street with misconceptions. The odd names just made
matters worse. Quarks are known as flavors: up, down, charm, strange, top, and
bottom. Doesn’t help to understand it – does it? That because we are animals
that instinctively used familiar ideas to graft unknown and new idea upon them,
inherently distorting with our brain’s lenses.

One of the earliest proposed
possibilities for FTL travel involved a hypothetical particle called a tachyon,
capable of tunnelling past the speed of light barrier. This turned out to be
more of a mathematical artifact rather than an actual physical particle.”

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